As we wait to hear later in the year which of the four shortlisted cities will be announced as City of Culture 2017, Dundee Contemporary Arts Director Clive Gillman tells us how Dundee is preparing to step into the spotlight.
Over the past few months it has become increasingly obvious that the relationship between a city and its culture can be a difficult thing to grasp. Cities seem to present many different faces, some only seen by insiders, others overtly looking outwards. It’s usually very difficult to be certain how the culture of a city comes to happen: whose culture rises to the surface, whose culture tells the real story – and above all whose culture gets investment. It’s also apparent that culture is inherently resistant to being directed. This is a challenge for any city aspiring to achieve some kind of recognition for its cultural profile, but even more so when factors such as economic and social impoverishment distort the surface on which the city plays out its cultural life.
Over the past six months Dundee has been engaged in thinking about these questions, exploring how a city can turn a lens on its complex cultural life in order to bring it into focus a little and to explore how to better use it. This is not easy, but maybe it can be done for just long enough to plot a course towards something which may see it develop and generate future value. This nautical analogy is perhaps appropriate for Dundee, as like many UK cities it has its roots in a maritime history. It is a city built on various cycles of sea trade, from flax to whales to jute. But today the water has become little more than an attractive backdrop to a city looking instead to knowledge and creativity to provide its new purpose.
Much of what is now exported from these parts now travels on pipes of light rather than channels of water and moves at speeds unimaginable by those previously driven only by the wind.
Dundee is currently one of four cities shortlisted for the title of City of Culture 2017 and as part of the process of trying to understand how Dundee can succeed in this process I visited Londonderry/Derry just a few days ago. I was keen to see how it was faring under the banner of UK City of Culture 2013 and how it had managed to balance the sometimes conflicting demands of popular tourism, cultural excellence, local creative development and legacy. I found a city with challenges of a similar shape to Dundee, but perhaps more profoundly skewed by open conflict than by economic aggravation. I encountered a city attempting to leave behind many of those things which had given so many so much purpose, but which were also the source of many of its worst anxieties – but overall a city which was incredibly appreciative – uncynically grateful – for the attention that it was now receiving from an interested world.
Our bid document achieved its first draft stage while I was in Londonderry/Derry and I spent many hours bouncing edits back and forth through the free Wifi that the city had provided for visitors. While I was engaged with reviewing our proposals for future activity I saw many new initiatives emerging in Derry, and I spoke to people with many different accents who now represent that city and learnt a little about what it means to push your city into the spotlight of national attention. I saw a city that was wrestling with the obligations and expectations that come with the accolade, but above all a city that wanted to give its citizens its best chance through activating and employing their culture – and that echoes with the message we hope to give from Dundee.
It’s clear that taking on the status of City of Culture is much more than a shallow exercise in cosmetics. It is part of a process of honestly and frankly appraising the future opportunities that the city has and this has been a big part of the process we have been undertaking in writing the Dundee bid. It is clear that we have achieved a lot here already – that we have a strong and engaged cultural infrastructure and there are more big projects being designed right now. But we are very aware that if we are really to rise to the challenge of being the UK’s City of Culture, we need to set out a course that challenges us and our national partners to address the role of culture. We need to look hard at how people understand themselves and their place in the world – and how they express this to others and make this the most important aspect of our civic lives. It needs to be part of the core of who we are as a city – as much as our landscape and our history.
If culture is as resistant to being directed as I believe, we must find a way to ensure that it is not just a process of accidents that send us around in circles, but instead is able to propel us forwards towards cities that are richer, healthier and happier places.